My birthday earlier in the week brought back memories of another birthday, one spent in far less auspicious circumstances. In fact, it could qualify as one of the worst birthdays I’ve ever had. It was my 20th and I spent it on a coach driving down through France for a skiing holiday. For reasons unknown we had some sort of compere up front with a microphone. Bleary and uncomfortable from hours of sleepless travel, I heard my name being called and knew no good would come of it. My attempts to pass incognito did not work, and I was hauled to my feet so that a coachload of indifferent strangers (for the most part) could sing Happy Birthday to me. I daresay there are people who would love the communal cheer of this sort of thing. I was not one of them.
We arrived at our resort, which was like all resorts the world over: not as nice as the photos in the brochure, with that slightly used and tired look of places that see vast quantities of human traffic. I can’t say that I had high hopes for my ability on skis, but I was young and naïve and the man who was to become Mr Litlove had persuaded me that I should try new things. I did not last very long on the slopes. The nursery slopes this late in the season were all ice and slush. The experience of careering down even a gentle incline whilst completely out of control of myself was not my idea of fun, and the tiny tots zipping past with insouciance were somewhat galling. I had been told that the après ski was wonderful, and some people seemed to find it so. We were with a whole lot of other students from UK universities and the resort echoed to the sounds of their drunkenness every night. It was best to visit the loos early in the evening and then hang on until the cleaners had passed through first thing in the morning. ‘You couldn’t have a better holiday than this,’ one of my friends enthused. ‘Exercise out in the fresh air every day. What could be better?’
Well, in all honesty, lying on my bottom bunk bed with a book seemed a vast improvement on the alternative. I was not in the best of moods. I had a sore backside, an overdraft for the first time due to the exhorbitant cost of skiing, and an inferiority complex. I simply could not find pleasure in the things that other people told me were pleasurable. I was not an outdoors, sporty type who liked to fling herself about mountain sides, and most of all I was annoyed with myself because I knew this. And I had allowed myself to be talked into doing something that had not even appealled as an idea because of some ludicrous belief that I could surprise myself. Even at twenty, I knew that lack of self-awareness was not my problem; it was living with my true nature that was going to be the challenge.
The enormous comfort of that trip was my copy of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, which I was reading for the third time. You have to understand that reading a book in German for the third time was a sign of true love. The German language is an extraordinary beast. In its wisdom, it has decreed that after the first verb, which may come in an appropriate place nice and early in the sentence, every other verb has to queue up at the sentence’s end in a tight little logjam. So you have to hang on mentally to every other part of the sentence until you come to those verbs and then reassign them to their appropriate places. Extra fun may be had by complex tenses, especially those including modal verbs and subjunctive voices, ie ‘what should have happened’ or ‘if he had been able’. This must account in some way for the efficiency and acumen of the German people. But for my poor bedazzled brain, it meant that reading slowed down to a crawl. I could read 60 pages an hour in English, 40 in French, and a mere 20 in German. But when it came to Hermann Hesse’s beautiful, flowing German, I scarcely noticed. I just didn’t want it to stop.
Hesse, like Rilke, is one of those writers who seems to write about the things I am properly interested in. He writes about how to live, when you do not feel like you fit with the ‘normal’ run of humanity, when you are miserable in ways others say you should not be, or when you simply want to live a good life and do not know how that can be achieved. His characters are always searching for a cure for living, and the answers they come up with – art, love, transcendent wisdom, acceptance with humour – feel like they might just work. I didn’t realise when I was reading the book at 20 how interested in psychoanalysis Hesse was, although it was already starting to enthrall me as a body of theory. Nor did I know anything about his life, and his extreme sensitivity – ‘like an egg without a shell’ one of his teachers described him, and that’s certainly a simile I could use for myself, at times. Only years later did I read a biography and feel a strong identification with him as a person.
In Steppenwolf, the main protagonist, Harry Haller, is so fed up with his life that he’s decided to commit suicide on his upcoming fiftieth birthday. But then he befriends a young woman, Hermine, his female alter ego, and gets to know the louche company she keeps. She teaches him to dance (not throw himself down a ski slope, note), and then invites him to the mysterious magic theatre for a masked ball. The hippie generation adored Hermann Hesse for inventing the magic theatre, which could read as a hallucinogenic trip. I saw it just as a place of fantastic imagination, a magical exploration of the parts of the mind that we normally visit only in dreams. I expect that the novel feels dated now, but reading in a foreign language (for me, at least) always took that sort of dimension off the language. I read it in a very pure way. It remains in my memory as a very pure book; one in which a man finds reasons not just to keep living, but to believe there can be goodness and magic and hope in life. It contained also a message that it would take me another twenty years to understand: that when there are parts of yourself you do not like, or feel ashamed of, the most helpful reaction is to accept them just as they are, to work with them, rather than hide them away. But at least after that unsatisfying trip, I did have enough sense never to go skiing again.